THUNDER BAY -- If you were active on social media last year, you might have seen an unusual-looking cupcake go viral.
Thunder Bay cake designer Jennifer Riley was asked by a local client to make something for the client’s cacti-loving mother’s 80th birthday. She made succulent cupcakes using piped buttercream for the cacti and graham cracker crumbs for sand.
As usual, she took a photo of the completed treats and posted it on Instagram, when it was picked up by the media company Dessert Insider which asked her to make a video.
The video went viral (9.5 million views and counting) and Riley found herself famous overnight. “I never thought there would be so many comments I can’t read them all!”
Going viral was the last thing on her mind when she set out to become a cake artist. Originally an early childhood educator, a bad car accident ended that career and she spent months recovering as she went through surgeries, physiotherapy and insurance claims.
Depressed, broke and aimless, she was watching Cake Boss on TV when it occurred to her that this was something she could try. She had always been creative and artistic, and cake decoration seemed like a great fit for her.
Her first cake, made for her brother, was a flop. “Everything went wrong - wrong cake, wrong icing, I didn’t have the skills or knowledge,” she recalls. “My brother was really happy about it, but it looked like a deflated elephant.”
Realizing she had some learning to do, Riley went to the Bonnie Gordon School of Confectionary Arts in Toronto for an intense six-week program. She then tried working in Toronto as a cake baker, but found it too gruelling for her bad knee. After another surgery and months of physiotherapy, she was back in Thunder Bay and ready to be her own boss.
It’s been five years this September, and she has gradually built up a solid reputation for herself both in and out of Thunder Bay. She does wedding cakes, birthday cakes and celebration cakes of all kinds, and the range of cakes she makes is as wide as her clients’ tastes - she has made pure white classical wedding cakes, a Van Gogh’s Starry Night cake, Sesame Street cakes, naked cakes and even one that looks just like a pickerel.
She has also started teaching as well, hosting classes where people can learn cake decoration. She has done workshops for mermaid-themed cakes and, of course, her succulent cupcakes.
Working with cake decoration is Riley’s “happy place” now - the days when she wondered “why me?” are behind her and she can keep going, confident that hard work will get her where she wants to go.